Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Three more ways to bolster brain
Stress for Success
May 12, 2009

Use it or lose it, they say. As you age this is more pertinent than ever.

I certainly hope that my mental capacities remain strong until my last breath. Doesn’t everyone? For that to happen I’m willing to invest more energy into healthy habits for my brain.

Last week I covered three of the six habits (exercise, diet and stimulants) covered in a Scientific American Mind, February/March, 2009 column, “Six Ways to Boost Brainpower” by Emily Anthes. Here are the final three habits to add to your list.

1. Video games: Before picking a surgeon you may want to ask if he plays video games. Those who play at least a few hours a week make one-third fewer operating room errors than non-gaming doctors. “According to research video games can improve mental dexterity, increase eye -hand coordination, depth perception and pattern recognition, and improve attention span and information processing,” Anthes reports.
a. But doesn’t excessive gaming cause increased violence in some? Several studies have shown this connection especially for those playing first-person shooter games where brain activity patterns consistent with aggression have been reported. But the preponderance of research so far doesn’t support the theory that video games contribute to increased youth violence. But these troubling findings deserve further research.
2. Music: Even though the “Mozart effect” has been challenged and some would say discredited, music does seem to possess wonderful benefits beyond sheer enjoyment. It activates your brain’s reward center and calms the amygdala, the brain’s fear center. It soothes anxiety, can minimize insomnia, lowers blood pressure, calms patients with dementia, and helps premature babies gain weight so they can be discharged sooner.
a. Music training can also bolster the brain. Musicians compared to non-musicians have a larger motor cortex, cerebellum and corpus callosum (the connection between the brain’s two sides.) Some studies show that music classes also improve spatial ability in young children.
b. I guess I should thank my dictatorial public school music director for pushing us to seek musical perfection. Apparently all of that practice increased my brainstem’s sensitivity to the sounds of human speech, not to mention the increase in discipline and competence, which led to increased self-confidence.
3. Meditation: Anthes reports, “Deep relaxation seems to help all types of conditions from anxiety to pain reduction to treating high blood pressure, asthma, insomnia, diabetes, depression and skin conditions. Those who meditate regularly report feeling more at ease and more creative than non-meditators.” Expert mediators show spikes of brain activity in their left prefrontal cortex, an area of the brain that has generally been associated with positive emotions. Those who have the most activity in the area during meditation also had big boosts in immune system functioning.”
a. Meditation can also increase focus and attention, therefore improve performance on cognitive tasks.

You’ve known that most of these habits are excellent for your health and stress levels. Now you know they’re also good for preserving mental power. It’s just one more reason to get going on increasing habits that enhance your overall well-being.

Jacquelyn Ferguson, M. S., of InterAction Associates, is a trainer and a Stress Coach. E-mail her at www.jackieferguson.com or call 239-693-8111 for information about her workshops on this and other topics or to invite her to speak to your organization.

Monday, May 04, 2009

Human brain needs care just like the body
Stress for Success
May 5, 2009

I joke with my chorus-mates that learning the large volume of music we perform annually protects us from Alzheimer’s. This may be truer than I thought.

Conventional wisdom has historically been that the adult brain lacked “neuroplasticity” - the ability to remold itself. But scientists are finding that it’s far more flexible than thought. Our behavior, environment, and possibly even thought patterns can cause the brain to significantly rewire and reorganize. The hippocampus, essential to learning and long-term memory, is one area active in new nerve cell development.

Scientific American Mind, February/March, 2009 reports on six healthy habits to help enhance your brain power based on this new understanding.
1 Exercise: Human studies show that exercise improves the brain’s executive functions of planning, organizing and multitasking probably due to increased blood flow to the brain increasing the delivery of oxygen, fuel and nutrients. Exercise also has mood-boosting effects and helps protect you from developing dementia as you age, even for life-long couch-potatoes. Studies of seniors have shown that just 20 minutes of walking a day is enough.
a. Use music to make your workout more powerful. In a study volunteers completed two workout sessions. In one they worked out in silence; in the other, they listened to Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. After each workout, participants completed assessments of their mood and verbal skills. When exercising with no music both skills were boosted while when exercising to music verbal scores improved twice as much.
b. Research finds that exercise improves sleep quality and immune function.
2 Diet: You are what you eat. Saturated fat is no better for your brain than for your body. Rats fed high saturated fat diets underperformed on learning and memory tests. Humans who consume quantities of saturated fats may also be at greater risk for dementia. Since your brain is mostly fat you do need omega-3 fats, found in fish, nuts and seeds.
a. Populations that traditionally consume high omega-3 fatty acid diets tend to have lower rates of central nervous system disorders.
b. Alzheimer’s disease, depression and schizophrenia may be associated with low levels of omega-3 fatty acids.
c. Fruits, vegetables and some nuts high in antioxidants (e.g., walnuts, blueberries and spinach) seem to be brain super foods countering brain cell damage.
d. It’s also how much you eat. Research on laboratory animals fed 25 - 50% fewer than normal calories live longer with improved brain function, better memory and coordination test performance, and are more resistant to damage from Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and in Huntington’s disease.
e. Babies need enough fat to create healthy neurons. Breast milk is 50% fat.
3 Stimulants like caffeine rev up the nervous system, increase heart rate, blood pressure, energy, breathing, arousal and alertness. One study showed that two cups can boost short-term memory and reaction time and can protect against age-related memory decline in older women; good news to those of us who love our morning coffee.

Next week I’ll cover the other three healthy habits of video games, music, and meditation.

Jacquelyn Ferguson, M. S., of InterAction Associates, is a trainer and a Stress Coach. E-mail her at www.jackieferguson.com or call 239-693-8111 for information about her workshops on this and other topics or to invite her to speak to your organization.